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Nathan Newman and I share a hobbyhorse -- the vital progress interest in more, and taller buildings in big cities. As Nathan says, affordable housing mandates are nice. But mandating that a certain proportion of new construction be affordable doesn't do much good if there isn't construction, period. The New Yorker also did a good piece a few months ago about the environmental benefits of density -- less car use and lower per cubic foot energy costs, most notably.

Before Michael Lind and Joel Kotkin jump all over me, note that I don't think people should be forced into high-density settlement patterns if they prefer to live more sprawling lifestyles, but right now most major urban areas in the United States are doing the reverse -- preventing demand for high density living near urban centers from being met with development restrictions aimed at protecting the interests of incumbent property owners. But the affordable housing activist and the real estate developer should be friends!

April 1, 2005 | Permalink


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For a cool and relevant website, go to skyscraperpage.com
and click on "Diagrams: Underconstruction". You can get a sense of the coming Chinese Hegemony by noting the numbers of skyscrapers going up in China.

Posted by: Mr. Bill | Apr 1, 2005 3:45:41 PM

People in the real America don't share your Manhattanite sensibilities, Matt.

I do, though, encourage the Democrat party to promote dense development!

Posted by: Al | Apr 1, 2005 3:46:49 PM

" But the affordable housing activist and the real estate developer should be friends!"

You are hired!

Seriously, the problem is that no one really wants "affordble housing." The politics are simply not there.

Posted by: David Sucher | Apr 1, 2005 3:47:04 PM

Right you are, my man! I moved to Seattle (from the wonderfully dense lake shore of Chicago), and the real estate market here is so out of whack. The nimby-and-nostalgia-drenched "liberals" out here oppose any and all development, insisting on their inalienable right to their cars and their single-family homes, all the while expressing crocodile-tear concern for affordable housing and the environment. Meanwhile, demand for housing of all kinds in the city of Seattle skyrockets, forcing prices way up because supply is artificially kept low by the restrictive development rules. The "liberals" here think they can repeal both the laws of supply and demand and the inevitably of growth as they try to preserve in amber an entirely outdated image of this town as a quasi-rural backwater.

Posted by: pdp | Apr 1, 2005 3:54:33 PM

Al, "the real America" -- are Manhattanites robots, figments of our imagination, or what?

Posted by: ostap | Apr 1, 2005 3:59:09 PM

Bravo, Matt.

David--The question isn't whether "affordable housing" is what's built; it's whether sufficient housing is built to make housing affordable.

Posted by: Thomas | Apr 1, 2005 3:59:19 PM

No doubt Matt. As well a suggestion/thought: what about taking underutilized spaces in the suburbs (ie garages, guest houses) and using them to house small businesses or social services (ie daycare). It is a small solution to help make the burbs a little more dense. Let me know what you think.

Posted by: Ian | Apr 1, 2005 4:04:22 PM

I have blogged on the politics of this issue: Who really wants Affordable Housing?.

The long-and-short is that far more individuals and interest groups want housing prices to go up than to remain stable much less go down. So there is no political constiuency for "afforbale housing" -- and that's even assuming that the government or society in general knew what to do, which it doesn't.

Posted by: David Sucher | Apr 1, 2005 4:06:16 PM

> insisting on their inalienable right to their
> cars and their single-family homes,

I like central cities myself, including the north side of Chicago where I once lived, but when you take a nice 1920s neighborhood with houses and 3-flats and fill it up with 30-story concrete block apartment buildings with marble foyers, what you have is for some odd reason no longer a nice enjoyable 1920s neighborhood but an expensive concrete canyon not much different from Robert Taylor Homes. Ever think that might be why people oppose dense housing?


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Apr 1, 2005 4:09:46 PM

This is an interesting question, but it is worth pointing out that NYC is unlike Seattle or San Francisco in that the tall buildings are not blocking any views worth looking at.

Posted by: theCoach | Apr 1, 2005 4:20:43 PM

Cranky: So you wanna give an example? I can't remember that happening in Chicago, anywhere, and I was there for the 90s/early 00s condo building boom. Old Town, the Near South Side, the West Side -- they all changed, but none of them were sleepy residential areas. Nothing like that has happened here in Seattle, where development has been allowed, and nothing like that is proposed.

Plus, here in Seattle anyway, the choice is not between smart growth and no growth, which is what the longtime residents would prefer. The choice is between smart growth (including some density and some more public trans) and insane, out-of-control sprawl, with ever-growing commute times, gridlock, ever-worsening air quality, etc. So let's be realistic about the choices here, eh?

What bugs me most about Seattle is the self-delusion: it's soooo liberal out here, yet everyone acts like a classic Don't Tread on Me Republican suburbanite. And you think you're cranky!?

Posted by: pdp | Apr 1, 2005 4:23:54 PM

the funniest thing is that NYC has ridiculous development restrictions for manhattan. there is a massive nimby movement in NYC (thanks acorn, etc), that makes NYC very expensive to live in (see rent control).

Santa Barbara CA is another place that is hilarious. Beautiful place, amazing houses, very wealthy. Not just limousine liberals but private jet liberals. It is insanely impossible to build there (all development goes through a view impact review to assess how much it impacts on other people's view of the mountains and ocean), and there is not very much space (no more than 5 miles from coast to unbuildably steep mountains). The local populace is shocked, shocked at the unavailability of affordable housing, and there are programs to subsidise housing costs for low-income workers.

Housing around SB is so tight and expensive that high tech and aerospace firms have programs to help people buy houses. We're talking about engineers in 80-150k jobs and up needing help to get mortgages and small houses. Of course 2 bedroom houses can cost 800k-1 million.

Affordable housing can be achieved easily: get rid of zoning and environmental reviews. Until you do that, you're just posing.

Posted by: hey | Apr 1, 2005 4:31:10 PM

Nathan Newman apparently takes the developer's claim that building the Jets stadium and building more rental properties go hand in hand. I fail to see a correlation. More likely the developer simply wants another selling point for the project.

One thing that is interesting about the politics of affordable housing is that until you have affordable housing in a given municipal area many of the people who want it don't live there and have no power at the ballot box. So, although it may be true that "the politics aren't there," it doesn't necessarily follow that "no one really wants "affordable housing.""

Discrepencies between the interests of stakeholders and the interests of voters exist with issues other than affordable housing. I haven't seen any polls on this issue, but I would be shocked if residents of Northern NJ and Westchester (you know, those people that actually use the West Side Highway) didn't oppose the Jets stadium project in far higher percentages than New York City residents. But the B&T crowd can't vote Bloomberg out of office.

Posted by: space | Apr 1, 2005 4:50:53 PM

Actually, there's been a recent trend in Manhattan for converting old skyscrapers into apartments. It got rolling downtown in the wake of 9/11 when businesses vacated still viable, but older buildings. The practice has spread, with the latest being the MetLife tower on Madison Ave.

More importantly, medium and high density housing is being built in areas of the Bronx that have are have not seen much or any growth in their housing stock for years (see here for an example). So at least in NYC, there is some reasonable level of housing construction underway even if the West Side Yards plans don't do much in that regard.

Posted by: JerryN | Apr 1, 2005 5:05:32 PM

First off "dense" housing does not necessarily mean impersonal, soul sucking, high rise apartments. You can make vibrant, dense cities with nice dense neighborhoods without drowning them in highrises. It's amazing that all you supposedly intelligent people on this site throw up your hands and say "it's just impossible, it can't be done". Haven't any of you morons ever visited Europe? Except for the largest European cities (Paris, London), most of them have managed to escape the out-of-control sprawl that has occured in this country and managed to supply affordable housing for their people. Even in Paris and London it is only in the last 20 years or so as they started to buy into the "American Model" has urban sprawl become a serious problem.

Posted by: Freder Frederson | Apr 1, 2005 5:06:48 PM

Washington DC is a beautiful city precisely because big ugly tall buildings do not shut out the sun. It would be a travesty to alter the height limit.

Is there affordable housing in Manhattan? Not really. Only because of rent control and only some buildings. So, tall buildings do not provide affordable housing. Just an ugly city. Pretty from a distance, but not in its sunless canyons.

Posted by: Alice Marshall | Apr 1, 2005 5:20:45 PM

Boston has very dense housing, mostly only three stories high. One factor is "private roads" which sneak off from the main streets and lead towards two to four other houses. These dead end roads provide a safe place for children to play, parking, and form little neighborhoods. Outside of downtown, yards are small yet large enough for a tree and few flowers. The three story houses usually provide the owner with two rental apartments or condominiums.

Posted by: peggy | Apr 1, 2005 5:28:43 PM

Freder, The average European lives in what the average American would consider a crackerbox not sufficiently large enough to house his cat. The European model is simply not an option for the U.S. Not that I'm suggesting that you're a moron.

Posted by: ostap | Apr 1, 2005 6:08:21 PM

I recommend the work of Jonathan Levine, chair of the urban planning program at the University of Michigan, who's doing research on promoting density and smart growth as a matter of market deregulation, rather than as increasing regulation. An example of his research, comparing Boston and Atlanta, can be found here (PDF).

Posted by: allen claxton | Apr 1, 2005 6:51:33 PM


Boston is an affordable housing nightmare right now. More expensive than lots if nice neighborhoods in DC.

Posted by: Abby Vigneron | Apr 1, 2005 7:03:31 PM

Thomas, The point is simple:

You have a lot of very powerful interest groups all of which gain by steadily increasing housing prices.
You have a political situation in which very few gain if housing prices go down or even stablize.

Restricting supply leads to stability of existing home loans -- that's a very big deal when you have huge government debt.

I well understand that no one builds "affordable housing" and that the only possibility is to build more housing to drive down prices.

Good luck! No one wants that except people who do not own --- and then they change their mind as soon as they have bought!

Honest, it's funny; go read my paper.

Posted by: David Sucher | Apr 1, 2005 7:51:55 PM

As a fellow Seattletonian, allow me to wholeheartedly endorse pdp's comments here. Any attempt to explain to people that their anti-growth politics may, in fact, be at odds with their progressive and environmental political positions will result in complete befuddlement. It's very frustrating.

Posted by: djw | Apr 1, 2005 7:54:40 PM

Freder, The average European lives in what the average American would consider a crackerbox not sufficiently large enough to house his cat. The European model is simply not an option for the U.S. Not that I'm suggesting that you're a moron.

This is simply not true. Although European houses are smaller, they are hardly cracker boxes. We need to adjust our expectations. We don't have to always have to get bigger and bigger.

Posted by: Freder Frederson | Apr 1, 2005 8:00:47 PM

Alice, the "sunless canyons" in Manhattan generally aren't housing at all. They're offices, recent conversions excepted. So that isn't relevant.

Posted by: AlanC9 | Apr 1, 2005 8:07:23 PM

Further confusing the issue, at least here in San Francisco, is that many progressives genuinely believe that building more housing leads to higher housing costs, and therefore resist it in the name of affordable housing!

Posted by: Jonathan Korman | Apr 1, 2005 8:25:10 PM

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